5 short stories

Top Five Short Story Reads from September 2016

September has been a very distracting month for me. So, most of my fiction reading has involved short-shorts, flash, sudden fiction, micro-fiction, etc., all of which are under the umbrella term of “flash fiction”, and, generally, less than 1000 words. And, of course, flash fiction goes back to ancient times across many cultures, when fables, parables, vignettes, and folktales were the more popular varieties of storytelling.

Featured authors: Grace Paley, Lydia Davis, Naomi Shihab Nye, Andres Neuman, Hugh Behm-Steinberg, Ana María Shua, Bret Anthony Johnston, Sejal Shah, Hannah Bottomy Voskuil, and Jim Heynen.

Brander Matthews, the first full-time professor of dramatic literature at an American university, described it thus in his essay ‘The Philosophy of the Short-story‘.

A Short‐story deals with a single character, a single event, a single emotion, or the series of emotions called forth by a single situation. (…) The Short‐story is the single effect, complete and self‐contained, while the Novel is of necessity broken into a series of episodes. Thus the Short‐story has, what the Novel cannot have, the effect of “totality”, as Poe called it, the unity of impression.

Brevity in fiction is truly a difficult skill because, in order for it to work well, every word/phrase/image/idea has to allude to a larger story. And, there is a kind of emotional and lyrical intensity that is necessary with such works too. Joyce Carol Oates describes it like this in ‘Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories‘:

The rhythmic form of the short-short story is often more temperamentally akin to poetry than to conventional prose, which generally opens out to dramatize experience and evoke emotion; in the smallest, tightest spaces, experience can only be suggested.

With that, let’s get this show on the road. Oh, and I’m going to sneak in more than 5 this month because, well, they are short shorts.

1 Boy by Bret Anthony Johnston (The American Scholar)

Jamaica Kincaid’s story, Girl, has been anthologized so often and is taught in many English and writing classes. It is a long, single sentence story of instruction and admonishment to a young girl from her mother. In particular, it involves the mother telling the daughter how to be a girl and what is expected of her.

Johnston is the director of the Creative Writing program at Harvard University. His response story is also a single sentence instruction and admonishment. And, like Kincaid, he gives us arresting visuals so we can almost see the entire thing unfolding before us like movie scenes.

Of course, both stories are more statements about how our society/culture perceives women and men and prescribes particular gender-specific behaviors.

Twist your fist when you connect and tear the other man’s skin; aim for the bridge of his nose, his throat; if there’s something heavy to swing–a pipe or board–pick it up before he does and lay him out; drive a truck with a manual transmission; carry a knife, sharpen the blade on wet stone; when buying cedar for a fence, look for knots and warps in the wood; when your son grabs an asp on a tallow limb, take the chewing tobacco from your mouth and press it to the sting; open doors for women and pay them compliments as they pass; make eye contact like a man and not like the coward you’re so bent on becoming. . .

2 Skin by Sejal Shah (Route Nine)

So, I discovered Sejal Shah’s work through a list of favorite flash fiction by Amber Sparks. I have yet to read through the rest of Sparks’ recommendations but this caught my eye because, of course, I identify with it.

Shah is a writer and a creative writing teacher. The narrator of her story here could be any brown/desi girl/woman living in the US. There are so many truths densely packed into this brief missive that you really have to read it a couple of times and then sit with it to fully absorb it all — particularly so if you happen to belong to the narrator’s ethnicity.

The story shows how a female narrator’s identification/comprehension of her own ethnicity changes kaleidoscopically, depending on the ethnicity of the male observer. Her sense of self-identity is not a firm, grounded thing but a forever-shifting, ephemeral, shape-searching thing. What is also eye-opening is that most of the observations the narrator relates from those male observers are the kinds of everyday, banal statements that people make in passing, and not intended as racist slurs. Yet, we come to see, soon enough, how they leave lasting impacts. Shah does a wonderful job in staying neutral as she unfolds the narrative, not pointing the finger at anyone at all — simply laying bare these little, hard-hitting truths of daily life.

This is what the white boys say: your hair. Your skin. This is what the black boys say: we together, together. This is what the Asians say: you date out too, I can tell. This is what the Jamaican boys say: I never liked you Indians. This is what the desis say: Get out of Massachusetts. Move to New York.

 

This is what the white boys say: but we would have brown children. And: color doesn’t matter. And: why are you so obsessed with it. We’re all Americans, right? How are we that different. My parents would love you. My older brother would want to go out with you. Your skin is your best feature.

3 Dorian Gray by Hugh Behm-Steinberg (Vestal Review Issue 49)

I got to know Hugh Behm-Steinberg after Eleven Eleven Journal, where he is the Faculty Editor, accepted one of my stories. So, I’ve been following his flash fiction through the summer. And, while he won the 2015 Barthelme Prize for Short Prose with a rather funny, surreal story about Taylor Swift, this version of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is my favorite so far.

I like most, of course, the switching of a painting with a selfie. And, how, today’s Dorian Gray is so obsessed with making his selfie better that, the outcome is the opposite of what happens in the original — I won’t spoil it for you, of course.

Dorian Gray likes his selfie, but not enough to share it with anyone. It just needs a few tweaks, so he opens it up in the image processing software he has on his machine and goes to work.

 

It gets tighter, but there’s always something else that can be fixed, some time-consuming process. Sometimes when he fixes the light in the background the color goes wrong, or when he adjusts the color there’s something else that goes off. The more he works on it, the more work there’s left to do.

4 Professional by Ana María Shua; translated by Steven J Stewart (Words Without Borders)

Ana María Shua has earned a prominent place in contemporary Argentine fiction with the publication of over forty books in nearly every literary genre: novels, short stories, short short stories, poetry, theater, childrens fiction, books of humor and Jewish folklore, film scripts, and essays.

Steven J. Stewart was awarded a 2005 Literature Fellowship for Translation by the National Endowment for the Arts.

This story has one of those twist endings that I’m not overly fond of but, here, it works perfectly and satisfying well. I also like how this is a complete story with a proper beginning, middle, and end. And, that is very tricky to do in just so many words. Besides all that, we have a distinctive narrator and tight dialogue that make this a rather enjoyable read.

Normal people fantasize a lot about our work, which is really pretty routine and not at all like what you see in the movies. Our first jobs are perhaps the most memorable. Contrary to popular belief, those of us who are experienced refuse jobs that are uncomfortable, difficult, or unpleasant. These fall, naturally, to the beginners. You can always find a needy kid who’s willing to strangle an old man for a hundred dollars.

 

I was just a beginner when I sat down in front of my first client, Mrs. Mercedes de Ulloa. I was nervous. Sure, I’d killed before, but always during armed robberies or gang fights. I had one important advantage getting into the profession: I’d never been caught.

5 Continuity of Hell by Andres Neuman; translated by George Henson (World Literature Today)

Another lovely piece of flash fiction with many layers and themes. We have a man trying to deal with his father’s hospitalization. And, rather than a straightforward monologue about death, mortality, fatherhood, etc., we get his impressions of his visit to the hospital, particularly his time spent in the underground garage.

It is clear, from both the title and the story, that the garage represents a kind of hell. Yet, it is the kind that the narrator seems to want to retreat to and take comfort in during the father’s illness.

The ending is somewhat unexpected, yet completely satisfying.

I detested going to the hospital, feigning a serenity that I didn’t have, squeezing into the gigantic elevator boxes, breathing that air which was too clean—ammoniac, unreal, disinfectant—until arriving at the fifth floor. Walking between the beds of sick people as if in a minefield—don’t touch me, don’t let death touch me—and then Hello, dad, how’s everything, everything okay?, you rest. I hated going to the hospital, although I did like descending into the garage and slowly maneuvering my white Opel. Sinking into the asphalt bowels gave me a strange sense of calm. I’d turn on the car’s headlights, and that gray, red, and yellow interior, the symmetry of the walls and columns, became a dependable realm with its safe rules and oneiric silence (do we dream sounds?)

6-8 ‘Currents’ by Hannah Bottomy Voskuil; ‘What Happened During the Ice Storm’ by Jim Heynen; ‘Thud’ by Naomi Shihab Nye (Publisher’s Weekly)

Here are 3 coming-of-age flash stories from a book length collection by Persea Books called ‘Sudden Flash Youth‘. Edited by Christine Perkins-Hazuka, Tom Hazuka, and Mark Budman, there are 65 stories here of no more than 1000 words from authors like Steve Almond, Meg Kearny, Dave Eggers, Naomi Shihab Nye, et al. I have not got the book. But, these 3 stories are a good teaser.

‘Currents’ by Hannah Bottomy Voskull is such a heartbreakingly beautiful story told in reverse. We get one scene after another, each presented with cinematic perfection. Let me not say more to avoid spoilers.

‘What Happened During the Ice Storm’ by Jim Heynen is another visually-arresting story. The setting is that of snow and ice and winter. And, yet, the ending is as warm as a lovely summer’s day. Again, I will avoid spoilers.

‘Thud’ by Naomi Shihab Nye (whose poetry I love) is the excerpt I have shared here. A teenage girl is trying to come to grips with a parent’s death. This is such a complete, well-told story and it avoids any sign of maudlin or sentimentality, both of which would have been easy traps to fall into. Yet, Nye’s perfection with prose is such that our hearts ache for this young girl and her confusion, her thoughts about how she might make that confusion disappear.

There are many things Rainey does not understand: war, and running with the bulls, for two examples. Why get any­where near herds of bulls and irritate them in the first place? Why is this popular? She would prefer to be liked by bulls—to meet them in a placid zone and stare at one another, trade some secrets, if possible.

 

She has no desire to binge-drink or congregate with believers. The pious confidence of people who think they know “the truth” repels her. If only one could slap them with mysteries….

 

She pictures herself on the edge of any scene.

 

Scenes need fringe observers—people to take notes and tell what you did later.

 

If you can find them.

9 Five Stories by Lydia Davis (Conjunctions)

Lydia Davis is one of the reigning queens of flash fiction. Though, these five stories are really, technically speaking, micro-fiction. But, OK. It’s Lydia Davis.

This particular one is my favorite out of the five because it gives us a complete moment. And, it’s almost like a prose poem with its precision and vivid imagery and that beautiful truth/insight at the end. You want to read it over again because it’s so simple, yet powerful.

There’s plenty more of Davis’ stuff out there. If you have not read any of her work, start with ‘Can’t and Won’t‘, an excellent collection.

FEAR

 

Nearly every morning, a certain woman in our community comes running out of her house with her face white and her overcoat flapping wildly. She cries out, “Emergency, emergency,” and one of us runs to her and holds her until her fears are calmed. We know she is making it up; nothing has really happened to her. But we understand, because there is hardly one of us who has not been moved at some time to do just what she has done, and every time, it has taken all our strength, and even the strength of our friends and families too, to quiet us.

10 Mother by Grace Paley

Grace Paley is one of my all-time favorite short story writers. She’s one of those writers who can pack a lot into less and still give us many layers. She also manages to give her characters such unique voices that, when reading, you can actually hear them speaking to you. Not an easy feat at all.

This story is bittersweet for me because it reminds me of having lost my own mother. It makes me want to see my mother standing in doorways again and talking to me, even if she’s only nagging about something or repeating a story she has told all of us many times before.

Apparently, Paley wrote this story with the specific intention of ending with “Then she died.” And, that is the ending, sorry to give it away. But, it will not ruin your experience of reading this, I promise you, because there is almost an entire novel in these few words.

One day I was listening to the AM radio. I heard a song: “Oh, I Long to See My Mother in the Doorway.” By God! I said, I understand that song. I have often longed to see my mother in the doorway. As a matter of fact, she did stand frequently in various doorways looking at me. She stood one day, just so, at the front door, the darkness of the hallway behind her. It was New Year’s Day. She said sadly, If you come home at 4 a.m. when you’re seventeen, what time will you come home when you’re twenty? She asked this question without humor or meanness. She had begun her worried preparations for death. She would not be present, she thought, when I was twenty. So she wondered.

Here’s Amy Hempel (another of my favorite short story writers) reading this story and calling Grace Paley her literary mother.

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